There should be no beating around the bush. Germany and France are failing Ukraine, and the Biden administration is doing nothing to ensure that its two key European allies correct course.
True, “Ukraine fatigue” of one kind or another was always coming our way. As Western publics become inured to pictures of Russian atrocities, war stories aren’t showing up on people’s online feeds. Voters on both sides of the Atlantic are keen to move on. And no one, of course, wants to bear the burden of high energy prices, which seems baked into the current sanctions regime.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculation has always been that democratic politicians in the West will find it hard to keep the focus for too long, especially if defeating Russia comes at a cost. German and French political elites are proving him right as we speak.
The most important story out of Germany in recent days is one of sanctions evasion — and of pressuring an ally (Canada) to do the same. Following a dubious Russian claim — that current gas supplies to Germany through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline required the immediate return of a Siemens turbine under repair in Canada (and subject to sanctions) — the German government sprung to action. With the consent of the US State Department, it pressured Canadians into fast-tracking its shipment and exempting it in a “time-limited and revocable” way from Canadian sanctions on Russia’s oil and gas sector.
But if a turbine can be exempted due to Russian blackmail, anything can. In fact, this latest incident was preceded by a German campaign to exempt Russian shipments through Lithuania to the enclave of Kaliningrad from European Union sanctions, which the German government itself had approved. Importing sanctioned metal goods from Russia into the EU was all right, Chancellor Olaf Scholz claimed, since those were “just passing in transit.”
Then there is Germany’s supposed “turning point,” or Zeitenwende, announced by Scholz days after the beginning of Russia’s “special military operation.” Observers of German defense policy note that the reality leaves a lot to be desired — not only has aid to Ukraine been deliberately slow-walked, but the German government is not even following up on its own commitments to strengthen Germany’s defense forces. According to some metrics, the country’s defense budget might well start falling from next year onwards.
While not as entangled with Russia economically, France is not covering itself in glory either. For a flavor of the French debate, consider the views of Hubert Védrine, France’s former foreign minister. Lithuania’s restrictions on transit to Kaliningrad, based on EU law, “were useless,” while “Boris Johnson’s posturing at G7 was “irresponsible” and driven “by a desire to profit from the current conflict by weakening Russia.”
“The day will come,” the French grandee reminds us as Russians are kidnapping troves of Ukrainian civilians to Russia and engineering a global famine, “when we will have to reinvent a peaceful coexistence with Russia.”
True enough, except that terms of such coexistence will be a function of Russia’s relative power — something that the West with the help of Ukrainians has a unique opportunity to degrade, reducing thus the threat that a revanchist Russia poses to the world for a generation.
Is Védrine a fringe voice? Not at all — he is close to Emmanuel Macron, and the French president even appointed him in 2020 to represent France on an international panel on NATO’s future. His own thinking mirrors Macron’s closely, as illustrated by the recent, behind-the-scenes documentary about France’s response to the invasion. In a scene shot on the train to Kyiv in June, Macron lambasts the “Anglo-Saxons” who want to “wipe out Russia” while being comfortable subjecting himself to weekly phone calls with Putin, in which he was being fed unhinged lies.
President Joe Biden came to office with the promise of bringing America “back” and restoring its fraying alliances. Yet as Germany and France are slowly peeling off the coalition of countries supporting Ukraine, the administration is just a passive observer.
Worse yet, some within the White House are likely awaiting the end of hostilities, regardless of its effect on Ukraine and the rules-based international system, with as much eagerness as French and German political elites. The West needs to do better — not just for Ukraine’s sake but also for the sake of its own security.
Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Twitter: @DaliborRohac.